I first met Jean Vanier in the unlikely surroundings of the boardroom at Goldman Sachs. He was a large man, completely at ease in the corporate environment, and his personality and warmth made him stand out far more than the fact that he was wearing a donkey jacket in a sea of suits.
He talked about the work of L’Arche, the international organisation helping people with learning disabilities that he founded in 1964. He explained the need for it and made an appeal that no one in the room could resist – an appeal to our common humanity.
I had recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria, where I was involved in a charity working with disabled children who had been abandoned in terrible institutions.
I told him that I was struggling to believe in God after all that I had seen. He put his enormous hands over mine, looked right through me and said: “But God believes in you, Rosa – never forget that.”
In 2015 I attended a talk that Jean gave in the House of Commons, and was once more completely captivated by his charismatic personality and by his extraordinary humility.
Later that year I went to visit him at his home in France, to interview him as he had been awarded the Templeton Prize. One of the requirements that Sir John Templeton insisted upon when he founded the prize, worth £1.1 million, was that it should identify “entrepreneurs of the spirit” and people who had devoted their talents to “expanding our vision of human reality”.
I can think of no one who embodied those sentiments more. From the two young men who came to live with him from the institution near his house in Trosly-Breuil, there are now 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries. In 1971, he co-founded the association Faith and Light to support those with learning disabilities and their families. Today, there are 1,612 communities in 81 countries.
What struck me most about Jean was his self-lacerating honesty. He described to me his meeting with a young man named Lucien, who couldn’t walk or look you in the eye, and how ashamed he was at what he felt, as “I saw rising up within me anger – I couldn’t stand it. What I couldn’t stand was not just him but the reaction he caused in myself. These are emotions that came up, so I can say I understand when a father who has a son who is screaming all the time and wants to kill him. I can understand that.”
He described the danger of putting people with learning disabilities into a category, because once they are in a category “they are no longer people”, which opens the door to “whether these people should be alive or not”. He said that after the discovery of the horrors of Auschwitz there was a change, and that people began to see that every person was important. There was more understanding that “before being a Jew, a Catholic or an atheist you are someone, you have a heart, you are capable of living”.
That is why for Jean community was at the centre of what he created. He was genuinely thrilled to learn that my daughter Domenica, who has Down’s syndrome, was, at the time, working in a pub pulling pints, because that meant that she was in a community – a part of something, not apart.
We talked about the future: what happens to people with learning disabilities when their parents are dead. “Don’t spend time worrying, spend time loving. Have fun together. The difficulty is that it becomes a place of pain, and you no longer have fun together. Be at peace, something will happen. If you have little communities, like Faith and Light – which we have had difficulty getting off the ground in England – when the parents die there is someone else who knows them, who can get them back into the community and give them support.”
The word “fun” was a favourite of his. “People with disabilities are beautiful people,” he said. “They have the right to be crazy, the right to laughter and to fun and so on. In a way we all want to be a little bit crazy and we are all caught up in conformity. This is it. They are allowed to be crazy, or they cannot be otherwise. They don’t have the power inside of them which obliges them to conform. They are allowed to be themselves.” He taught me the importance of finding joyous moments in everything that we do, and insisted that we take a photograph of us together, with him waving at Domenica.
Jean encouraged me to start Team Domenica, a charity that trains adults with learning disabilities to get them into employment. I was overwhelmed by the task ahead, but he said:
The danger is to become disillusioned, or to lose enthusiasm. The fact is that people with learning disabilities are not looking for power, and [are] just looking for love – that can strike the heart of someone. There is something very particular in the friendship of people with a learning disability. It is not linked to advancement, or having more. It is a pure relationship, having fun together. The cultural problem – who am I if I don’t win? – is very deep. The wonderful thing about people with disabilities is that they are teachers. They teach us that the important thing is to relate – not for advancement, not for power – but to relate.
We are frightened of weakness, and, let’s face it, we are frightened of death, but strangely enough it is as we diminish we can say to each other that we need each other, we can be together.
He went on to say that “the big thing today is how to get people to relate with the different”. He told me I needed to create a place in the community, where people can visit and overcome their fear. And so, under the umbrella of Team Domenica, the idea of Café Domenica was born.
The privilege of meeting Jean had a profound impact on my life. His message was so simple: a powerful message that the reason why things work is love; the reason why we exist is love; and compassion, and care for the most vulnerable, is a fundamental part of that love.
The fee for this article has been donated to Team Domenica (teamdomenica.com)